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Cambridge captain, Sri Lanka’s Gamini Goonasena

Good bowlers are born, not made they say. No amount of practice and determination can make a first class bowler, if he has not been gifted with a great deal of natural aptitude, ability or skill. Basically, there are two fundamental principles to all types of bowling. This, I presume every bowler must master - length and direction. Without them, a bowler cannot hope to succeed. You maybe able to hurl as quickly and fast as Courtney Walsh, Glenn McGrath, Wasim Akram, or Brett Lee, but they will be liabilities to a side, if they cannot aim at the stumps. There is also no point in spinning the ball like a top, if it reaches the batsman as a full toss. Therefore, length and direction are the foundations of a good bowler.

Leg break bowling

In today’s context, leg break bowling or leg spin bowling is a dying art. Anyone wishing to become proficient in the art of leg break bowling must be prepared for hours of hard work. The spin for a leg break is usually imparted by lifting the third finger sharply and at the same time turning the wrist from right to left. The anti-clock wise spin which is thus obtained, should make the ball break from the leg to the off when it pitches. A leg-spinner should endeavour to flip the ball when he delivers it.

I dedicate this article to my good friend and co-commentator, the legendary Gamini Goonasena, whom I have lost touch with for many decades. The last occasion I met him was about two decades back, when he entrusted me to translate his valuable book ‘Art of Leg-Spin Bowling’ to Sinhala. The two of us commentated in the Royal-Thomian matches in the late 1980s. It was a real honour to be seated with him in the box and what pleasant times we had those days. He was an expert in analysing the game, which he loved so much.

At that time, the Royal-Thomian commentary team consisted of Mevan Peiris, Ranil Abeynayake, Neill Chanmugam, Michael de Zoysa, S. Skandakumar, Mahinda Wijesinghe, Lucien Wijesinghe and Gamini Goonasena and yours truly, the guest commentator in Sinhala. This, I feel was the best commentary team and to commentate with such experienced cricketers was something I cherish to this day.

Lovable character

Gamini Goonasena is a lovable character, a fine human being and undoubtedly was one of the best or the best leg spinner that Sri Lanka has produced. In fact, I will always remember the year 1989 when I had the honour of commentating from Lord’s with Gamini Goonasena, Trevor Baily, Colin Milburn and company. It was Gamini who introduced me to Peter Baxter and the commentary team. What an experience it was!

Pinnacle of school big matches

It’s a dream for any schoolboy cricketer to play in a Royal-Thomian encounter. The annual Royal-Thomian cricket encounter can be considered as the ‘Pinnacle’ of all big-batches. A Royal-Thomian encounter was first played in 1879 and it is considered the second longest uninterrupted cricket match in the world. Therefore, any school cricketer who wears the Blue, Gold and Blue or Blue Black and Blue Cap and Blazer will go down in history of the great tradition of these two great schools. Whoever who wears it, can proudly state to the world that he played in the greatest sporting pageant in Sri Lanka.

Gamini Goonasena, born on February 17, 1931, first played in a Royal-Thomian on March 16 and 17, 1947, under the captaincy of M. Kasipillai. Here, Royal won by nine wickets. In his debut big match, Goonasena captured 1 wicket for 9 runs in 7 overs at the Oval.

Under T. Parathalingam’s captaincy in his second Royal-Thomian, played at the SSC grounds, Goonasena destroyed the Thomian batting by returning the magical figures of 30-10-44-7. This big match was played on March 12 and 13, 1948.

We must mention here about another great bowling feat by another Royalist, G. Tissa Kapukotuwa, son of that great educationist and administrator S. L. B. Kapukotuwa, who returned the figures of 17-6-35-7 in 1945. The late Tissa Kapukotuwa later took to politics and he represented the Teldeniya Electorate in Parliament.

All-round effort

Gamini Goonasena played in the 70th Royal-Thomian, under the captaincy of Channa Gunasekera and captured 3 wickets for 64 runs in 24 overs. In this match, Goonasena scored 58 runs.

He represented the Sinhalese Sports Club (SSC) in the club circuit and later migrated to England. With sheer determination, commitment and hard work, he became a right arm leg spinner and middle order batsman and signed up to play for Nottinghamshire County Cricket Club, which was founded in 1841. Gamini Goonasena began his career as a professional in 1953.

Cambridge University star

In 1954, Gamini Goonasena entered the prestigious Cambridge University which was founded in the 12th century. It was here that he brought credit and honour to Sri Lanka, winning the ‘Cricket Blue’ and captaining the ‘Light Blues’ University of Cambridge in his first year, 1957, having a future England captain Ted Dexter (Test 62, innings 102, 8 n.o., runs 4,502, Hs - 205 Av. 47.89, 100s - 9, 50s - 27, catches 29 - Bowlings - 5317, runs 2306, wickets 66, Av - 34.93. Bb. 4/10) as his deputy.

Records galore

In the historic annual cricket fixture between Oxford and Cambridge Gamini Goonasena was at his best and scored an epic double century (211) at Lord’s - the Mecca of cricket. He is the only Sri Lankan to score a double century for Cambridge.

In a Test match, that ‘Batting Artist’ Sidat Wettimuny, in the 1980s, came very close to it, scoring 190 against England at Lord’s. Goonesena’s match bag of 5-90 for Cambridge University was a major factor in the defeat of Oxford University by an innings and 186 runs. It was the heaviest defeat ever inflicted on the ‘Dark Blues’.

Further, Goonasena (211) and G. W. Cook (111), were associated in a 7th wicket partnership of 289 runs, which was a first class record at Lord’s.

During his distinguished career at Cambridge University, from 1954 to 1957, Gamini Goonasena was the only player at that time from either university to have amassed more than 2000 runs (2,309) and capture 200 wickets (208), in first class cricket. This is the highest recorded by a Cambridge player.

Undoubtedly, the great Gamini Goonasena was the most outstanding all-rounder produced by Oxford and Cambridge Universities, since the big contests began 183 years ago. The battle between Oxford and Cambridge was interrupted due to the world wars, in early 1900s and the 1943-1946 period.

Gamini Goonasena’s is a household name in England. He performed the ‘Double’ - 1000 runs, 100 wickets twice for Nottinghamshire. His best was in 1955 with 1350 runs and 134 wickets. His all round performances earned him a place to represent E. W. Swanton’s XI in 1955-56 and Cavaliers in 1964-1965 to the West Indies and for an International XI to India, Pakistan and Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Later, he worked for the Tea Board in Australia, in the early 1960s. During that period, he played for New South Wales in the Sheffield Shield.

In the 1980s, the late Gamini Dissanayake, who is considered as the ‘Yugapursha’ of Sri Lanka cricket, invited Gamini Goonasena to join the cricket administration of Sri Lanka. He captained Ceylon, his native land, but his great heroes in cricket flourished in England and Australia. He acted as Sri Lanka’s representative at the ICC.

Further, he served as the manager of the Sri Lanka Test Team in mid 1980’s when Sri Lanka team which toured India. Undoubtedly, he was one of the most knowledgable of cricketers and an efficient cricket administrator. While in Sri Lanka, he worked at Dimos, as the marketing manager.

Gamini Goonasena is the best leg-spinner and the best all-rounder Sri Lanka produced before Sri Lanka gained Test status. Today, I understand that he is domiciled in Australia.

Unfortunately, Sri Lanka did not make the best use out of this great cricketer.

Gamini Goonasena was a shrewd captain. Peter May (Surrey), Colin Cowdrey (Kent), professional Cyril Washbrooke (Lancashire) were some of his rival captains in England. Peter May and Colin Cowdrey, both captained England.

Gamini Goonasena is a fine conversationalist. He had charm and he was a charismatic figure. As a cricketer he was meticulous, methodical and organised and flawless. His contribution to cricket has been outstanding. It will be remembered for all tim.

His brilliant record while at the University of Cambridge, Nottinghamshire and in Australia may some day be matched, but they can never be surpassed.

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